Tech Nation Report 2018: the politics of clustering

2 Feb, 2018

Geographic borders are inherently political. Working on the 2018 Tech Nation report has made me fascinated about the politics of geospatial boundaries and clusters.

We are currently in full swing developing the 2018 Tech Nation report. I feel really lucky to be at the forefront of the research and data process. Literally everyday I am learning something truly insightful about UK digital tech, and working alongside some really talented people in the process.

Recently, I’ve been spending lots of my days at the Office for National Statistics Secure Research Service (SRS) – a data laboratory for heavy number crunching of the most granular social statistics available in the UK. It was a true haven of fun for me, even if it meant no natural light or mobile phone for days on end. I’ve been using R to crunch datasets with well over 10 million rows.

Analysing the UK

The Business Structure Database (BSD) is really handy dataset that covers private enterprise across the UK. This year is the first that Travel to Work Areas (TTWAs) are featuring more prominently in the geographical methodology and reporting. Unlike the Annual Business Survey (ABS), the BSD is a population data frame which lists all businesses by TTWA. To give you an idea of the data output, here is the top digital tech turnover in 000s by TTWA from the last year:

  • London, £64111459
  • Slough and Heathrow, £19441384
  • Reading, £13576572
  • Bristol, £7922494
  • Newbury, £7069589
  • Basingstoke, £5919687
  • Guildford and Aldershot, £5433674
  • Portsmouth, £4711742
  • Manchester, £3207128

There is only one Northern TTWA in the top 9 for turnover. Digital tech employment is very different story though – the Manchester TTWA is actually the fifth highest for digital tech workers. So we are seeing a trend – the South generally has higher turnover per worker. We all know about the productivity crisis – this is us analysing and uncovering it for ourselves.

TTWAs are special, and I like them a lot. Unlike NUTs regions (counties and regions etc.), they are based on census data. They represent genuine clusters of people – where they work and where they live. They certainly aren’t perfect – the census only takes place every 10 years, meaning the latest TTWA regions are from 2011. However, they are at least dictated by data and the movement of people, and not historic and often arbitrary county boundaries.

The politics of clustering

I recently spent some time with my friends at the Leeds ODI. They have developed a Tech Innovation Index. You should check it out. Crucially – the clusters are dictated by the data observed, and not pre-defined. The clusters fit the data, and not the other way around. Another example I recently saw was at a talk given by Professor Jane Green from the British Election Study. Green is asking members of the public to draw polygons on maps to show where they perceive their own social cluster to exist. This work is being completed with Bowers, Fieldhouse and Wong.

Where possible, we should always strive to use data to define the clusters that exist in life.

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  1. Interesting. Adding an historical dimension will tell you HOW they came into existence. In 1980 Newbury was a small market town with virtually no tech companies but close to the M4. Norsk Data established an office there partly because their main competitor DEC was in Reading (closer to Heathrow/higher rents). ICL was in Bracknell and IBM in Basingstoke. Newbury grew rapidly; Racal established their cellular telephone company (now Vodafone) in Norsk’s old office and now dominate local employment.

    Similarly Microsoft & Oracle “seeded” Winnersh (between Reading and Bracknell – (close to the M4). Portsmouth was seeded by IBM and Bristol by HP.

    Is TTWA based on time or distance or both?